Brandon Barrows is the author of several novels, the most recent being Strangers’ Kingdom from Black Rose Writing. He has published over seventy stories, selected of which are collected in the books The Altar in the Hills and The Castle-Town Tragedy. He is an active member of Private Eye Writers of America and International Thriller Writers and was a finalist for the 2021 Mustang Award.
The Right to Hang
by Brandon Barrows
Pa squinted at the sun, just dipping behind the hills to the west, one hand shielding his eyes. “‘Bout supper-time.” Hoe slung over his shoulder, he turned to me. “Hungry, Al?”
“Sure am,” I said.
Pa nodded and began walking, his heavy brogans kicking up little puffs of dust on the path between rows of corn sprouts. He was like that: nothing to say unless he really had something to tell you. Imitating him, I put my own hoe on my shoulder and followed.
Halfway between field and house, we stowed the tools in the shed, then Pa pulled up a bucket of water from the well. It tasted sulphury, but it was always cool and that was more important to me after a hot day’s work. Pa and me each had a drink, then he dumped what was left over my head, sending a shiver down my spine and making me laugh with pure joy. The tight little smile Pa showed me was about all the emotion I ever saw from him, but I knew he was happy, too. A spread of your own and a son to carry on your name was everything a man could ask for, he once told me.
Pa replaced the bucket then, quiet as ever, headed towards the house. As we reached the low fence that surrounded it, a chorus of squawks and little chirrups greeted us. He ignored the scrawny rooster and six little hens who crowded around his feet, begging for their supper, and continued to the door of the house.
I stopped in the dooryard, though, and called after him, “Chickens are hungry, Pa.”
Without a glance at me or the birds, he answered, “Reckon,” and veered off towards the henhouse for the sack of cornmeal, hanging in its rafters.
I stood and watched for a moment, enjoying the happy sounds of the birds as they scrambled and pecked for the meal my father gave ‘em, and when he went to put away the sack, I pushed open the door to the house and went inside.
I saw the stranger then.
He was nobody I knew from neighboring homesteads or that I ever saw in town. Finding him in the house brought my heart up into my throat. A twelve-year-old boy may like to think he’s about growed, but when something like this comes along, he’s a kid again lickety-split.
The man stood, silent and staring, his eyes wide in his unshaven face and a handful of dried apples clutched to his chest. He was narrow-hipped and wide-shouldered, but wasn’t a very big man, not much taller than me, even if he was probably fifteen or twenty years older. Pa was about six feet, and this stranger maybe would have come to his shoulder. The man was dressed like a cowpuncher, but his Levis were so filthy they were more dirty brown than blue, with holes worn in the knees and a long, thin tear high on his left thigh, crusted with dried blood. He had no hat and wore no gun-belt, so I knew something was wrong; I never before saw a ‘puncher without either.
“Where’d you come from?” Pa’s voice boomed behind me.
The stranger hesitated, looking like he wanted to run. Our house was a soddy, though, with only a single door and a pair of small windows on either side of it. With us between him and the door, there was nowhere for him to go.
The small, dirty man looked from Pa to me. Turning his eyes to the floor, he said tiredly, “Narrow Flats.”
Narrow Flats was the nearest town, less’n eight miles away, but I didn’t see no horse and it was a ways to walk in a horseman’s high-heeled boots.
Pa thought for a moment then said, “Looks like you come the roundabout way.”
The stranger smiled weakly. “Reckon so. Don’t know this country too good. Guess I got turned around. I saw your place and thought maybe I could get some grub. Nobody was home and…”
“And so you thought you’d steal yourself something?” For the first time in years, there was anger in Pa’s voice.
“No, no! I just wanted something to eat, I swear—”
“Look here, mister.” My father’s voice grew hard in a way I’d never heard. “You came into my house without invitation, looking like you’ve been crawling through mudholes and over bobwire, so don’t hand me no guff. You’re running from something, so just tell me about it and then I’ll decide what to do with you.”
Behind the dirt and the tangle of whiskers, the stranger’s face went pale. It was plain he wanted to just run away, but unless Pa let him, there was no way he could. After a moment, he seemed to sag in on himself like an empty sack leaned against a wall. “All right.”
Pa gestured towards the table in the center of the room. “Sit down. Let’s be civilized about this, at least.” He was a good man, and a kind one, even at such a time.
Setting the dried apples on the table, the stranger pulled out a chair, gratitude on his face now. “Obliged.”
Pa wasted no time. “What’s your name?”
He said it like he expected us to recognize the name, but it meant nothing to me and I could tell it didn’t to Pa, neither.
McCray added, “Thought you’da heard of me.” Pa said nothing, just stared at the other man. McCray lowered his eyes to the table. “I’ve been in the pokey over in Narrow Flats the last few days.”
“How come you’re here now, then?” Pa asked.
McCray took a deep breath. “Folks were getting riled up, said they weren’t gonna wait for no trial when they could just have themselves a necktie social and save trouble all around.”
“Whole damned town!” McCray cried. “I heard ‘em talkin’ all day yesterday, outside the jail, ‘bout the circuit judge takin’ too long to show up and there bein’ no point anyway when they knew I was guilty. The marshal was aimin’ to take me to the county seat and stick me in the sheriff’s jail soon as it got dark enough to sneak me out, but I didn’t trust him. There was something in his eyes when he looked at me…” He shook his head.
“So when he pulled me from the cell last night, I saw my chance, got in a lucky punch and lit a shuck. I ran most’a the night and hid all day in that stand of trees yonder from your place.” McCray waved a hand. “I wanted to keep on goin’, but I had to eat somethin’ and then I saw your house and…” He trailed off again.
Pa stared at McCray a long time, digesting what the other man said, I guessed—maybe trying to decide if McCray was telling the truth. Finally, Pa asked, “What did you do to rile folks so bad?”
Lester McCray waited plenty long before answering and when he did, he seemed to be choosin’ his words real careful. “They say I killed a girl.”
The room was awful still all of a sudden, as if everything, even our heartbeats, had stopped. I stood next to the table, trying to keep all my attention on both men at once, wondering what would come next, scarcely daring to breath for all the tension. Images flashed through my mind, of Pa overpowering McCray, tying him up, throwing him in the bed of the wagon and bringing him back to town, being treated like a hero by all the neighbors.
Or maybe that was too much trouble. Maybe Pa should just take down the scattergun over the hearth and put an end to McCray himself. If McCray really was a woman-killer, that was the least he deserved.
“Did you?” Pa asked, real quiet.
McCray’s face scrunched up. “What difference does it make? Them folks already made up their minds.”
“It ain’t up to them, just like it ain’t up to me,” Pa answered. “That’s what it matters. We got laws for a reason.” He sighed and leaned back in the chair. He cast a glance at me before turning back to McCray. “Fact remains, though, that whether you did anything else, you broke jail and I got to turn you in.”
“To that mob?” McCray got pale all over again.
“No.” Pa shook his head. “I believe in the law and every man’s got a right to a fair trial. If you can’t trust the marshal, I’ll turn you over to the sheriff.” He indicated me with his head. “I can send Al up to the county jail with a note for Sheriff McLaughlin.” Something sang in my chest when he said that. I was never trusted with anything so important before.
Relief came into McCray’s eyes. “That’s something, anyway.”
“I will see you into the law’s hands, though, McCray. Don’t believe for an instant I won’t.” Without looking at me, he added, “Al, get the scattergun. Make sure it’s loaded.”
“Yes, sir!” I snapped. Pa spoke more words in the last few minutes than he did all together in the past week and the importance of what was happening hung heavy in the air all around us. I moved to the hearth and lifted the gun down. From the cabinet by Pa’s bunk, I took out the box of shotgun cartridges, broke open the gun and fitted a cartridge into each barrel.
That’s when I saw them.
I was so focused on first the gun, then loading it, that I didn’t notice the men outside, coming from the direction of the woods, until they were halfway across our fields.
“Pa…” I said.
He must have heard something in my voice, because he left his chair and joined me by the window. He only looked for a moment before moving away from it again. To McCray, he said, “Guess they tracked you.”
“What’re you gonna do, Pa?” I asked, my voice high-pitched with fear. Ordinarily, I’d be embarrassed by such a thing, but I didn’t even notice then.
Both McCray and I watched Pa as he worked it over in his mind. I kept stealing glances outside. The men out there weren’t hurrying, but they were closer each time I looked, and they were making straight for the house.
“I won’t let them take you, Mr. McCray,” Pa finally said.
My throat thick, I asked, “You gonna fight all those fellers, Pa?”
Pa looked at me. “I won’t fight any man unless he forces me.” He indicated the shotgun with his chin. “Hold onto that, Al. Guard McCray. They won’t take him if we can help it, but don’t you let him loose, either.”
I nodded. My mouth was suddenly too dry for words. I looked at McCray, then quickly turned my eyes away again. I was terrified, but almighty proud, too. Pa was trusting me just the same as he would trust a full-growed man.
Pa looked to the stranger. “You get all that, McCray? Just keep quiet and stay put. I’ll go out there and when those fellers ask, I’ll tell them I haven’t seen anything, don’t know anything, never heard of you.” McCray’s head bobbed up and down.
Pa went to the window. The men were past the fields now, almost to the house. He turned to me. “No man deserves hangin’ without a trial, Al. Those folks out there are mostly good, but they’re scared and angry and that can make ‘em lose their sense. It ain’t up to them or us to judge anybody. That’s why laws and courts exist.” His eyes shifted to McCray. “Laws protect all of us, guilty or innocent. You understand me?”
I swallowed hard, my head bobbing.
Pa nodded, turned and went out the door.
I wedged myself into a corner where I could see out of the nearest window, hoping I couldn’t be seen from outside. With the shotgun, I gestured to McCray and he got the message, cramming himself into the opposite corner, in back of the house, where nobody could see him. The way we were positioned, I could cover both the door and McCray with the shotgun without moving too much. My heart was beating so hard, though, and my hands were so slippery with sweat, I didn’t know if I’d actually be able to was it necessary.
Through the corner of the window, I saw Pa tromp across the dusty dooryard, scattering chickens. He met the possemen at the fence surrounding the house, Pa inside and the other men out. He lifted a hand and his mouth moved, but I couldn’t hear the words. One of the men moved out of the group, a big, rawboned man I recognized from around town, named Stevens. He held a Winchester in both hands and there was a sixgun strapped to his hip. His eyes were shaded by a dusty-black planter’s hat, but his mouth worked fast and I could tell he was angry.
Stevens and Pa talked for a minute or so and then, from somewhere in the mass of men, a voice called, “The hell we’ll take him back! We’ll hang him from the nearest tree!” One of the small panes was missing from the window and I could hear the words, but didn’t know who of the ten or twelve men out there said ‘em.
“Then I’m glad he ain’t here!” my father shouted back.
Stevens stepped forward, brandishing his rifle, pushing his way through the gate in the fence. He was close enough and loud enough that I could clearly hear him say, “Sticking up for McCray, are you, Sloan?”
“Sticking up for the law,” Pa answered. “Only the courts got the right to hang a man.”
“You a law-yer now, Sloan?” Stevens jeered. There was a chuckle from somewhere in the posse, but it sounded weak and tired.
“He’s guilty!” someone shouted. “Old man Drake found McCray’s hat in his yard and two other folks say they saw him leaving the place.”
“Let them tell it to the judge,” Pa said.
There was a kind of growl from Stevens. “We come to ask you to join us in the search, Sloan, but I got a feeling we won’t be looking much longer.”
“I wouldn’t join a lynch mob no matter how nice you asked, Stevens.”
The big man opened his mouth to reply, but a rail-thin fellow dressed like a townsman yelped, “Hey! Ain’t that blood?” his finger outstretched.
As one, every man turned to the dark stain on the top bar of the fence, by the gate. Neither me or Pa noticed before, but pointed out, it was plain.
“Reckon it might be,” Pa said. “I killed a chicken for supper.”
“Is that right?” Stevens asked.
The thin man who spotted the blood swiveled his head towards the others. “Was McCray hurt anywhere?”
“Found scraps of denim on some bobwire a ways back,” someone answered.
“How about it, Sloan?” Stevens snarled. “Got a supper guest?”
“Ain’t seen this McCray,” Pa said, matter-of-factly.
“Then you won’t mind if we take us a quick looksee inside.” Stevens made to push past Pa.
I turned towards McCray. Even half-hidden in the shadows at the back of the room, he looked scared and frail. He pressed his back so hard against the wall, it seemed like he was trying to burrow right inside it.
“You stay out of my house, Isaac Stevens.” Pa said it real loud, like he was warning all the men, not just Stevens.
“A look won’t hurt if you got nothing to hide.” Stevens shoved Pa away as two other men leapt the fence to restrain him.
As the possemen grabbed Pa, he cried, “Al, watch out!”
I had no time for deciding what to do. The door swung open and a huge shape, black against the growing night outside, filled it. Stevens stepped inside, the Winchester rifle leading him. He paused, letting his eyes grow accustomed to the darkness. I could have shot him down in that moment, but my heart was racing and I was too scared to lift the gun. I was so prideful when Pa needed my help that I forgot for a few minutes that I was still just a twelve-year-old boy.
“Put the gun down, kid,” Stevens ordered and I knew his eyes were adjusted because he was pointing the Winchester right at me.
I tried again to lift the scattergun, but my arms wouldn’t obey. I heard someone shout, “Don’t take another step or I’ll blast you!” It was a moment before I recognized my own voice.
“Fine. I can shoot from here,” Stevens said and brought the rifle in line with where McCray huddled in the corner of the room.
I was scared so bad I thought I might pee myself, but Pa trusted me and that meant a lot. Somehow, I found the strength to bring the shotgun up and before I knew it, the right barrel was belching fire and the Winchester was spinning out of Stevens’s hands.
“Yooowch!” he bellowed.
Faces appeared at the windows and Stevens, his own face full of rage, clutching his right hand to his chest, shouted, “Get Sloan in here!”
Nobody moved. Stevens roared again, sounding like a wounded bull, and then many hands pushed my father forward, through the door, to stumble into the house. Stevens was breathing heavily as he wrapped his right arm around Pa’s throat and with his left hand, pressed the barrel of his sixgun to Pa’s head. “Tell your boy to put the gun down, Sloan.”
Pa looked at me and I think he was trying to decide how scared I was, how much I understood of what was going on, and whether he could ask any more of me. I did my best to look brave, and slowly, he said, “Al, you just stay where you are. Keep hold of that gun and you shoot down any man who takes a step towards Mr. McCray.”
That made Stevens even madder. Even in the worsening darkness, I could see his eyes get bigger and wider, and his jaw clenched in fury. He let go of Pa’s neck and nudged him with his shoulder, making Pa stumble again, then smashed him in the side of the head with the butt of his revolver. Pa might have fallen, but suddenly two other men were inside the house to grab and hold him up.
It happened fast and my anger rose just as quickly, burning away the fear. I raised the scattergun to my shoulder, aiming at Stevens. I didn’t fire, though; I didn’t dare. Pa would be caught in the pellets’ spray. My eyes strained, searching through the gloom for the rifle Stevens dropped, wishing I had it instead of the shotgun. If I had a rifle, I could have picked off Stevens and the men holding Pa without touching a hair on his head.
“What’s the matter, boy?” Stevens said the last word like it was something dirty. “Don’t like seeing your Pa hurt, huh?”
My chest clenched and my finger tightened against the trigger. My mind raced. I didn’t know what to do. My eyes bounced from Pa to Stevens to McCray hoping someone, anyone, would give me the answer. McCray, too, was waiting, crouched down, looking less and less like a man and more like a scared, hunted animal.
Stevens was the first to decide. His long, beefy arm shot out, latching onto Pa’s collar, ignoring the pain it must have caused his injured hand, and pulled him close. He swung Pa around like a ragdoll then pressed the sixgun against the back of Pa’s head. I still had Stevens covered with the shotgun, but now Pa was between me and the big, hateful man. “Put the gun down, boy. Is McCray’s life worth your Pa’s?”
“What do I do, Pa?” I cried, feeling hot tears rolling down my cheeks. I hadn’t cried in almost three years, not since ma passed, but the fear and the anger were just too much.
“You shoot if you have to, Al,” Pa said, calmer than I could have imagined.
Shoot Pa? To save a woman-killer like Lester McCray? I couldn’t believe my ears. And even if I did, how would that save the man? Even if I killed Stevens, there were a dozen others to take his place.
Stevens must have read my mind because a grin spread across his face. He pushed Pa forward, putting the two of them squarely in front of me, using Pa as a shield. “You don’t want to shoot your Pa, boy. McCray ain’t worth it. Put the gun down.” When I didn’t, he repeated himself, shouting, “Put the gun down!”
“Do what I told you, Al!” Pa yelled.
The sights at the end of the gun-barrels wobbled and it was getting hard to see through the mist in my eyes. Pa struggled, but couldn’t break Stevens’s grip, not with that sixgun at his head. Others crowded into the house behind Stevens, eager to get in on the “justice” they planned to dish out.
For an instant, my eyes cleared and I saw Pa looking squarely at me. He stopped struggling against Stevens, then his chin dipped the slightest bit, and I knew that it was a signal. With every ounce of willpower in my body, I steadied the scattergun and fired.
A lot of things happened all at once. Men screamed—more than just Stevens and Pa. Lead pellets zinged around the room, burying themselves in wood and flesh. The possemen were pushing and shoving, falling over each other, trying to get out through the narrow doorway and into the safety of the night.
Pa and Stevens were separated now. Stevens was on the floor, clutching a ruined knee, wailing and sobbing. Pa was leaning against the overturned table, inspecting the bloody gash in his denims where the spray of pellets tore through the pants and the meat of his leg.
McCray, ghostly white, eyes huge and staring, collapsed to the floor, pulled his knees up to his chest and put his head on top of them.
Solemnly, the circuit judge’s deep voice intoned, “For the murder of Sadie Drake, I sentence the accused, Lester McCray, to hang by the neck until dead.” With a crash like thunder, his wooden gavel fell on the table, ringing across the temporary courtroom.
A pleased-sounding murmur went through the folk assembled in the Longhorn Saloon. I tried not to look at Lester McCray. I didn’t want to know what was on his face.
My father, sitting against the wall by the door, levered himself to his feet with the aid of the crutch Doc Feeny loaned him days earlier. “Let’s go, Al,” he told me and turned towards the street.
People streamed around us, headed towards the square where the gallows, built the night before, stood. There was a carnival atmosphere, like when the rodeo was thrown a year ago to celebrate the five-year anniversary of Narrow Flats’s founding. None of that happiness touched either Pa or me.
When we reached the buckboard, I made to help Pa up onto the seat. He put his hand on my shoulder, but instead of propelling himself upwards, he looked straight into my eyes and said, “It was always going to end like this, Al, and I don’t say it’s right, but this way, it’s legal at least. Do you understand why that’s important?”
I wasn’t sure if I did, but I just nodded. I didn’t think I could handle any more lessons. Not on this subject, not for a while. I helped Pa up onto the bench and we set off for home. Neither one of us said a word all the rest of the day.
Copyright 2021 by Brandon Barrows